American Aquarium have gone through a number of changes since BJ Barham founded the band in the mid-2000s: In 2017, after many lineup changes over the years, the band completely split, and Barham assembled a 100-percent new group. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the band's consistently good music.
American Aquarium's catalog -- eight studio projects and two live records -- contains a little bit of everything: Stripped-down acoustic numbers sit beside angry, loud barn-burners. This list of the band's best songs runs the same gamut.
"The World Is on Fire"From 'Things Change' (2018)
Unlike most American Aquarium songs, “The World Is on Fire” is explicitly political. It’s set in the despair that many felt in November of 2016, following the presidential election, and finds Barham making bold declarations.
“I got a baby girl coming in the spring,” he explains, “and if anyone builds a wall in her journey / Baby, bust right through it.” And it’s hard to argue with the line he repeats in the chorus: “We must go boldly into the darkness / And be the light.”
While the song may alienate some listeners, Barham thought it was an important enough track to serve as the opener on Things Change.
"I Hope He Breaks Your Heart"From 'Dances for the Lonely' (2009)
Barham practically slurs the opening lines of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” a standout song on 2009’s Dances for the Lonely. “Well, last night wasn’t so good,” the song begins. “And tonight’s looking worse.” The full track feels like a bar jam, a song about love and regret and anger. Barham delivers his lines in equal parts twang and slur, emphasizing his cruelty and desperation at the same time.
"Water in the Well"From 'Small Town Hymns' (2010)
Thematically, “Water in the Well” feels more like story-based, classic country than other American Aquarium efforts. It’s narrated by a solemn, desperate man who's begging God to either stop him from losing the family farm or help him find work. He’s desperately searching everywhere, but “the papers say that times are tough and the money’s runnin’ low.” The melody of “Water in the Well” is stripped down and consists almost entirely of stringed instruments, with simple percussion urging the heartbreaking song along.
"Lonely Ain't Easy"From 'Burn. Flicker. Die.' (2012)
“Lonely Ain’t Easy” takes its time getting started: It lopes along as a fiddle and guitar-driven instrumental for nearly a minute before Barham delivers the song’s blistering opening line: “The only thing certain is we end up alone.” A stripped-down version of this song first appeared on 2008 EP Bones, but the fuller, more fleshed-out version that appears on Burn. Flicker. Die. comes with guests: That fiddle at the beginning is played by none other than Amanda Shires, and she and husband Jason Isbell also lend harmonies to this bittersweet song.
"Wolves"From 'Wolves' (2015)
In comparison to other American Aquarium songs, “Wolves” feels lighthearted and happy, even though it hinges on the refrain “I wish these wolves would keep their claws out of me.” Barham’s voice sounds lighter, and the music is full at the chorus. The final chorus drops out and then builds back in, making the payoff even stronger, and its sing-a-long feel makes it a perfect pick for live performances.
"Casualties"From 'Burn. Flicker. Die.' (2012)
“Casualties” is a sad, somber song that’s somehow full of life and hope. In some ways, it sounds like the thesis statement for American Aquarium at that point in their career: “Breakin’ points and broken guitar strings,” sings Barham. “We get big and we lost everything.” The song doesn’t deliver any easy endings, but musically, it builds and builds until lines such as “We’re playing a game we know we’ll never win” almost sound like a celebration. For his part, Barham tells American Songwriter, "Casualties" is "probably" is favorite song on Burn. Flicker. Die.
"Family Problems"From 'Wolves' (2015)
“Family Problems” opens the 2015 album Wolves with minor piano chords and, in that way, sets the tone for the full album. “This town has got a way of suckin’ you in / Chewin’ you up / Just to spit you back out again,” Barham half-sings, half-growls. Musically complex with a punctuating guitar line, “Family Problems” sees darkness and still insists on hope: “But if you’ll take my hand, I’ll let you fix what you can,” sings Barham, then letting the song spiral into a musical explosion for the last (utterly enjoyable) two and a half minutes.
"Reidsville"From 'Small Town Hymns' (2010)
“Reidsville” is another stripped-down song, from Small Town Hymns; it sounds like a cross between Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen and something from Josh Ritter. The song trusts its lyrics to stand on their own, supported only by an acoustic guitar and Barham’s twanging voice. The story of a going-nowhere small town, “Reidsville” lingers on lines including, “‘Cause we were too young to know what this town had in store / We were much too in love to give a goddamn."
"When We Were Younger Men"From 'Things Change' (2018)
From American Aquarium’s most recent album, 2018’s Things Change, “When We Were Younger Men” finds Barham sounding older and wiser, in part because he spends the song reminiscing about lost youth and old friendships, but also because he simply sounds older, even more confident, comfortable and clear in his voice and delivery. Like the best American Aquarium songs, "When We Were Younger Men" mixes despair and hope and delivers it in a package with which you can’t help but sing along.
"Losing Side of Twenty-Five"From 'Wolves' (2015)
“Losing Side of Twenty-Five” opens with a repeating, trilling guitar arpeggio. The melody throughout the song is brighter and poppier than other American Aquarium tracks, and Barham spits out his lyrics quicker and more playfully than he typically does. The result is another song that feels like Barham celebrating his life and career, while fully acknowledging his limitations. He sums it up like so: “Yeah, I might never have a mansion / Hell, I might never own a home / But I got a couple songs / And some boys I call my friends / And a pretty girl that I can call my own.”